On the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the War of Terror, a leaked report has US military intelligence suggesting that Al Qaeda is now the most important political and military force in Iraq's largest province.
If the report being leaked is accurate, then the US has clearly suffered a massive defeat in al-Anbar province. After spending huge amounts of material and goodwill - in Iraq and internationally - trying to pacify the province with bullets and bombs, it has lost effective control of cities like Ramadi and Fallujah, as well as the region along Iraq's border with Syria.
This set of facts throws down the gauntlet to the warmongers in Washington. Should an attempt be made to reconquer al-Anbar province - to repeat the attempts to pacify Fallujah on a larger canvas - or should the US effectively give up on the province?
Either decision has awesome consequences. The massive military operation that would be required to retake the province, even if only temporarily, would provoke anger and protests, inside and outside Iraq, and also cost many US lives, at a time when public opinion is turning strongly against the war. On the other hand, simply giving up on Anbar would mean that the US accepted Al Qaeda and other virulently anti-US forces as de facto political players in Iraq - as forces that had to be included in negotiations about the future of the country.
Juan Cole, a liberal critic of Bush who nevertheless supports the maintenance of the occupation of Iraq, has advocated withdrawal from al-Anbar, suggesting that the US will never be able to pacify cities like Fallujah and Ramadi, and that it must be prepared to deal politically with the forces that effectively control them:
There is no point in keeping all those US troops there. They will just steadily be blown up or picked off. Hold provincial elections, hand the keys of the cities to the new govenors, and withdraw over the horizon. The Shiites and Kurds will have to reach an accommodation with them, and it would be all to the good if they knew that the Americans were no longer going to try to keep the Sunni Arabs down for them.
In other words, divide and rule, or at least influence. The US approach seems so far to be to refrain from trying to recapture the whole of the province, but keep troops in a few 'islands' - Ramadi, and areas close to the Syrian border - so as to maintain some sort of illusion of control and avoid presenting a picture of humiliating withdrawal. As the year goes on, and the Republicans suffer heavy electoral defeats because of the endless wars in Iraq, Cole's more pragmatic brand of imperialism is likely to win many advocates in Washington.
The real left has a very different take from Cole - it calls for immediate US withdrawal from all of Iraq, not just al-Anbar province. Here's a statement from the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq on the strike action Basra oil workers have been taking against the occupiers and their stooge government.